The current President Bush has proven willing to reverse the positive steps toward post-Cold War disarmament his father’s administration set in motion. After the last U.S. nuclear test in September 1992, the former President Bush instituted an American testing moratorium that resulted in other nuclear weapons states abandoning testing as well. This was followed by Bill Clinton’s substantial disarmament efforts from 1992 to 1997, a period when the U.S. withdrew nuclear weapons from 10 domestic states and several European bases and reduced the overall size of the U.S. stockpile from 18,290 to 12,500 warheads.
In the waning years of the Clinton administration and throughout the current President Bush’s time in office, however, nuclear disarmament has slowed to a snail’s pace. The U.S. stockpile was reduced by only 2,500 warheads (to the present total of about 10,000) from 1997 to 2007 and less than 100 inactive warheads are dismantled annually today compared to the 1,000-1,500 eliminated each year during the 1990s.
Although the 2002 Treaty of Moscow (also known as the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty or SORT) between the U.S. and Russia stipulates that both countries reduce their number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012, the Treaty has an ambiguous counting procedure, fails to adopt explicit verification mechanisms from previous agreements, and doesn’t even address delivery vehicles, reserve stockpiles, or short range tactical nuclear weapons. The U.S. currently deploys around 5,400 strategic warheads, a long way from its ultimate SORT pledge, and recent Russian overtures to negotiate further reductions have been labeled ill-timed and insincere by Bush administration officials.
Since U.S. deployed strategic nuclear weapons—even if reduced to SORT mandated levels—clearly satisfy any and all security obligations, why do we continue to retain approximately 4,225 warheads in our reserve stockpile?
The short answer is that pro-nuclear analysts argue that the U.S. must have a substantial “hedge” in case any deployed warheads ever malfunction or the U.S. is confronted with a renewed existential threat such as a resurgent Russia or a confrontational China.
Advocates of nuclear disarmament, on the other hand, counter that the U.S. should fulfill its promises under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which stipulates in Article VI that nuclear weapon states end the arms race and begin disarmament “at an early date.” Anti-nuclear analysts argue that U.S. policy, especially its Complex 2030 plan, strengthen the nuclear ambitions of states like Iran and North Korea. The case that they should give up these ambitions is harder to make when nuclear weapon states like the U.S. consistently demonstrate “Do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy by invoking the NPT to prevent new countries from acquiring nuclear weapons but conveniently forgetting that the NPT also requires them to disarm.
The genesis of Complex 2030
The easiest path to a sharp reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile has been completely ignored by the Bush administration. If the U.S. simply reconfigured its outdated nuclear targeting doctrine—which is based on Cold War-era requirements for massive retaliation against thousands of military, industrial, and population centers in Russia, China, and elsewhere—the need for such large numbers of both deployed and reserve nuclear weapons would be eliminated without undermining necessary deterrence calculations.
President Bush has instead taken a completely illogical approach: he wants to reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile by building MORE nuclear weapons. Under the aegis of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy responsible for overseeing the nuclear weapons complex, the U.S. is on the brink of producing new nuclear weapons and rebuilding the supporting infrastructure via Complex 2030.
In a preliminary Notice of Intent issued on October 19, 2006, the NNSA presented four central proposals as part of its Complex 2030 planning scenario:
Select a site for construction of a consolidated national plutonium center;
Consolidate plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) within each of the eight preexisting facilities and reduce the overall number of facilities containing plutonium and HEU;
Consolidate, relocate, or eliminate duplicative facilities and programs;
Accelerate nuclear weapons dismantlement activities.
Aware that this full slate of proposals might not be well received—especially when you consider the sticker shock of a Government Accountability Office estimated initial cost of $150 billion—the NNSA presented two alternatives for consideration during the Complex 2030 public scoping period, which ran from October 19, 2006 to January 17, 2007.
The “No Action” alternative would maintain the stockpile status quo but permit already scheduled upgrades to proceed that could potentially lead to greater weapons production capabilities at several nuclear facilities. These upgrades unfortunately fail to address lingering environmental and human health concerns from Cold War-era production. The second alternative, “Reduced Operations,” doesn’t include a consolidated national plutonium facility like the full Complex 2030 proposal but could still substantially increase current bomb-making capabilities by establishing “a basic capability for manufacturing technologies for all stockpile locations,” a condition that doesn’t currently exist.
Besides these massive changes to the stockpile infrastructure, another controversial program that has become part of the overarching Complex 2030 vision is the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. Originally introduced in the FY2005 consolidated appropriations bill by Rep. David Hobson (R-OH-7), RRW was vaguely defined as “a program to improve the reliability, longevity, and certifiability of existing weapons and their components.”
Although Hobson believed the new program would simply “challenge the skills” of weapons designers “without developing a new weapon that would require underground testing,” the NNSA quickly incorporated RRW into its broader Complex 2030 plan and began laying the groundwork to produce, according to NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Thomas D’Agostino, “weapons with different or modified military capabilities…[as] a hedge against an inherently uncertain future.” The quest for a new generation of RRW weapons started with a competition between the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratories to determine a design to serve as the prototype for future RRW development. A winner should be announced soon but both labs are expected to be involved during the development and production phases.
The NNSA doubles down
On February 2, 2007, disarmament and nonproliferation analysts were shocked to learn that the NNSA was not only undeterred by the prospect of justifying funding to a newly Democratic Congress, but also unafraid of further expanding the scope of Complex 2030’s already quixotic vision.
In a new report outlining changes to the Complex 2030 proposal, the NNSA introduced a fourth alternative for consideration: the “Consolidated Nuclear Production Center” (CNPC). Originally proposed by the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) in July 2005, the CNPC “bombplex” goes well beyond the consolidated plutonium facility proposed in the original October 2006 NOI. The CNPC would be tasked with enormous new responsibilities, including assembling and disassembling weapons, prototyping components designed by the weapons laboratories, and manufacturing, testing, and storing all plutonium and HEU “required to support the current and future needs of the Complex.” (SEAB Report 14.)
Beware the bureaucracy
The problems involved in this new CNPC alternative are enormous. First, the NNSA did not include a CNPC in its October 2006 proposal because it disagreed with the accelerated timeline aimed at having the facility up and running by 2015. The original SEAB report proposing a CNPC assumed that plutonium “pits,” the cores that trigger nuclear weapons, were rapidly becoming unreliable. SEAB suggested that if these pits only last 45 years, the CNPC must be constructed by 2014, but if they last 60 years, it could be delayed until 2034. (SEAB Report 17)
However, a November 2006 study conducted by American weapons laboratories and reviewed by JASON, an independent government advisory body of nuclear scientists originally founded by members of the Manhattan Project, revealed that plutonium pits remain viable for at least 90 years, twice the earlier estimate of 45 years and three times the age of the oldest weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. This new information on plutonium pit durability completely discredits SEAB’s timeline and shows that pit deterioration will not become an urgent problem for decades. Why on earth has the NNSA reintroduced a CNPC proposal whose central justification—producing new pits since the old ones are degrading rapidly—was just declared illegitimate by the preeminent nuclear advisory body in the U.S.?
A few additional details further reinforce skepticism about the CNPC. The original SEAB report rather lamely brushes aside the issue of cost by saying it simply “...did not have the time to study in detail the financial implications of various Major Transformation Recommendations.” (E-1) But, SEAB of course goes out of its way to recommend that NNSA purchase “components and assemblies from commercial industrial vendors to the degree practical.” (14-15) After all, what would a major infrastructural overhaul be without billions of dollars in no-bid contracts for the military-industrial complex?
The reintroduction of the CNPC as part of Complex 2030 is just the latest example of the NNSA’s reoccurring push for costly but unnecessary programs under the lackadaisical oversight of the Bush administration. Previously, the NNSA and Department of Energy vigorously pursued new low-yield nuclear weapons, a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a Modern Pit Facility for plutonium warhead development, and a reduction in the time needed to approve an underground nuclear test. This relentless support for big budget, “gee whiz” nuclear weaponry—which has very little use in counterinsurgency campaigns like Iraq and Afghanistan or against non-state terrorist organizations—suggests that DOE and the NNSA may be more committed to maintaining their relevancy and resources within the vast federal bureaucracy than responding to current security challenges. The Government Accountability Office recently referenced “DOE’s history of poor project management” in a November 2006 request for increased congressional oversight of Energy’s activities.
An indecent proposal
The NNSA claims that Complex 2030 will eventually lead to a smaller U.S. nuclear stockpile because RRW models will be much simpler to produce and thus can be churned out more rapidly. This enhanced production capacity will, in theory, allow the U.S. to reduce the overall size of its reserve stockpile of 4,225 warheads by offering, in the words of former NNSA administrator Linton Brooks, “greater confidence in our weapons’ reliability...[to] reduce the numbers of spare warheads.”
The problem is that Complex 2030 only promises to eliminate older warhead models after RRWs are in place, meaning that the U.S. will be building more nuclear weapons in order to have less. Aside from this counterintuitive bit of mental gymnastics, citizens have a responsibility to ask whether rebuilding the entire nuclear weapons complex is absolutely necessary. Are U.S. nuclear weapons becoming unreliable in a way that justifies spending $150 billion on the next generation of new nuclear weapons?
The JASON advisory body is not the only group that says “No.” The current U.S. stockpile—based on 50 years of research and more than 1,000 underground nuclear tests—has been repeatedly labeled "safe and reliable” by nuclear experts and NNSA administrators. The Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) and Life Extension Program (LEP), which currently exercise primary stockpile maintenance responsibilities, are widely regarded as impeccable success stories. Robert Nelson, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that U.S. weapons scientists understand warhead reliability better today under SSP and LEP than they did when nuclear tests were actually being conducted. “There is nothing unreliable with the nuclear weapons the United States already maintains,” Nelson unequivocally stated.
What about assertions that Complex 2030 will help consolidate the sprawling nuclear weapons complex within the U.S.? This seems to be a laudable upgrade since the danger of fissile material theft or a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility is a very real threat.
Under the current NNSA Complex 2030 planning scenario, however, the U.S. nuclear weapons complex would be consolidated from eight major sites into exactly eight major sites. In other words, the proposal doesn’t call for the closure of a single facility, merely recommending the internal relocation of sensitive nuclear material at each facility. While consolidating within each facility is a good idea and stands out as one of Complex 2030’s positive elements, there is still a complete failure to address the environmental degradation caused by Cold War-era production and to consider shutting down one or more of the facilities and moving its operations elsewhere. “Consolidation” seems to be more of a NNSA talking point than a reflection of Complex 2030’s desire to move beyond bloated Cold War-era production and maintenance practices.
Impacts on U.S. foreign policy
It seems unlikely that a new generation of warheads would be deployed without real-life nuclear testing. “I can’t believe that an admiral or a general or a future president, who is putting the U.S. survival at stake, would accept an untested weapon if it didn’t have a test base,” said Sidney Drell, a physicist and longtime adviser to the U.S. government and nuclear weapons labs. Princeton University physicist Frank von Hippel echoed this sentiment: “The question really is whether this thing will work [and] whether you can have confidence in an untested warhead.”
If Complex 2030 did lead to reinstated U.S. nuclear testing, the international security repercussions would be enormous. A U.S. nuclear test of an RRW design would likely dissolve the current testing moratorium honored by the permanent five nuclear powers (U.S., U.K., Russia, China, France) and permit these competing nations to enhance their nuclear capabilities in a renewed global arms race. For example, a U.S. test might cause China to feel that its rising superpower status was being threatened and it was losing its ability to reliably deter the U.S. in a confrontation over Taiwan. Since it is only a few short development phases away from miniaturizing its warhead design and acquiring a Multiple Independently-Targeted Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) capability, a renewed nuclear testing environment—initiated by Complex 2030—could provide China with a pretext to build on its recent successful test of an anti-satellite weapon.
Neither will new nuclear weapons slow the emerging nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il cite the overwhelming superiority of the American nuclear arsenal as a justification for their aggressive nuclear brinksmanship. Upgrading and adding to our reserve stockpile—with a flimsy promise to reduce it later—will not convince the Iranian Scylla, North Korean Charybdis, or any other less attention-grabbing nascent nuclear state that the U.S. is serious about dampening the visibility of nuclear weapons in its security policy.
Lastly, U.S. nuclear supremacy failed to prevent 9/11 and a new generation of weapons will not stop the next terrorist attack. Non-state organizations like al Qaeda do not respond to classic Cold War state-to-state deterrence and are unlikely to stop their quest for nuclear devices just because the United States constructs fancier warheads.
The road ahead
The only part of Complex 2030 that has received congressional funding up until this point is the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which received $9 million and $25 million in its first two years of existence. Although RRW funding for FY2007 was frozen at the previous year’s levels thanks to the “continuing resolution,” the Department of Energy just requested $89 million for RRW in FY2008, a 220 percent increase from FY2007. The Department of Defense also requested $30 million for RRW in FY2008, bringing the inter-departmental total to $119 million.
On February 5, DOE revealed that it would not address the entire Complex 2030 in its FY2008 budget request. DOE did, however, make an initial $25 million request for a consolidated plutonium center, which was part of the original October 2006 proposal. The massive funding that activists should prepare for now, however, will be in the out-years when Congress will be asked to up the ante and DOE will either need a larger budget or will have to make cuts in some of its other programs (like Environmental Management, for example).
With the new Democratic Congress in place, opponents of a renewed nuclear arms race are presented with a unique opportunity to stop Complex 2030 once and for all. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA-10), the new chairwoman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, has promised to hold a series of oversight hearings on new nuclear weapons. Although Tauscher supports RRW (largely because the Lawrence Livermore weapons laboratory is in her district and 8,700 jobs are at stake), she has explicitly stated that she opposes restarting nuclear testing. “If new warheads can’t be made and fielded without testing, I see no alternative but to terminate funding for the program,” Tauscher said recently.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA-6) just introduced legislation (H.Res. 68) that calls on President Bush “to eliminate...weapons of mass destruction from United States and worldwide arsenals,” and Rep. Jim Matheson’s (D-UT-2) office plans to reintroduce H.R. 1194, “The Safety for Americans from Nuclear Weapons Testing Act.” Rep. Matheson’s father died from cancer linked to nuclear testing and the congressman has expressed anger that Americans have been used, in his words, as “guinea pigs.” (CQ Weekly, January 15, 2007.)
A huge boost to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts came from an unlikely source in January 2007. George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn penned a momentous op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” Emerging from several normally hawkish members of the realist foreign policy establishment, this op-ed challenged conservative Republicans’ right flank and may provide an opportunity for Congress to propose relevant legislation addressing the issues raised in the op-ed. “Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be…a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations,” the authors conclude.
Activists and analysts are buzzing with these exciting developments. We may finally see some progress on limiting the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy and honoring international nonproliferation and disarmament commitments after years of willful dereliction under the Bush administration. In the meantime, activists and citizens should focus their efforts on raising awareness about Complex 2030 and pressuring members of Congress to oppose funding for any new nuclear weapons.